June 2, 2020
So Roger Federer became the first tennis player to top the Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
They say money talks – and it does.
But in this case the story speaks of more than money alone.
And like all good stories, it leaves us wanting more – at Wimbledon 2021.
Best start with the figures though – before we look at the truths behind them.
Federer made $106.3 million. Even more than the two greatest soccer players in the world.
Cristiano Ronadlo came second – something he doesn’t ever like doing – with $105 million.
Lionel Messi was pipped into third on a still-mind-boggling $104 million.
Another footballer, Neymar was fourth on $95 million. Basketball star LeBron James completed the top five on $88.2 million.
Fans of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal could be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of injustice.
Haven’t they both won more Grand Slams recently? Didn’t Novak beat Federer in last year’s impossibly dramatic Wimbledon final?
Djokovic also beat Roger on his way to the only Slam to be played so far this year – the Aussie Open.
And yet the Serb comes in at number 23 on the Forbes rich list with earnings of “only” $44.6 million. Nadal isn’t far behind at number 27 with $40 million.
No disrespect to Djokovic or Rafa. They are both in the mix to become the greatest of all time. But this isn’t about prize money.
On the prize money list, Novak is the undisputed number one with career earnings of $144 million. The highest earner of all time.
If this was about current success on court, Kei Nishikori wouldn’t be the next most prominent male tennis player on Forbes’ athletes rich list.
And yet there Kei is, at number 40 with a cool $32 million. A super-hero to millions in Asia and beyond.
Federer isn’t number one on the latest rich list because of the form he has shown in the last year or more.
Roger won’t be the best-loved player at Wimbledon 2021 because he is favourite to win it.
Money talks. But it tells a story stretching back beyond the most recent trophies and their deserved winners.
In the world of professional sport, earning power depends on more than sporting prowess alone.
Before we examine that reality further, let’s not forget the women’s rich-list rankings.
Of the six top tennis earners, two were female.
One you can probably guess – Serena Williams. Like Roger, she hasn’t won too much of late.
But like Djokovic, her career earnings of $93 million in tennis prize money leave her rivals behind.
This year she comes in at number 33 on the Forbes list. Still deeply impressive. An indication of enduring popularity and admiration.
But for the first time in five years she is pipped by another female tennis superstar.
Naomi Osaka is 29th because she made a cool $37.4 million.
Again, it’s not as though Osaka has been sweeping all before her of late. Past US Open and Australian wins have been tough acts to follow.
But while the rankings speak of recent sporting performance, the rich list tells a different a story.
Global appeal. Potential. These are important ingredients. Like Nishikori, Osaka is massive in Asia.
Roger is massive all over the world.
Make no mistake, Federer’s financial power owes much to the fact that he has won more Grand Slams than anyone else. The world loves a winner.
But when you have so many other attributes, the world loves you even when you haven’t won for a while.
The biggest attribute Federer has is his sheer class.
The amount he has won on court in his lifetime counts for a lot. But the grace he shows off the court as a human being counts for just as much as the grace he shows on the court at places such as Wimbledon.
The most simple way of putting it is this: everyone loves the guy.
And if you love your sporting hero, you will probably buy what they recommend.
Roger isn’t exactly short of sex appeal either. Federer, as they say, is the complete package.
Forbes’ senior editor Kurt Badenhausen explained: ‘Roger Federer is the perfect pitchman for companies, resulting in an unparalleled endorsement portfolio of blue-chip brands with $100 million a year for the tennis great.’
That’s extraordinary. Federer made nearly all his money through endorsements. The rest was mostly made through appearances.
Prize money and trophies barely came into it.
That’s food for thought. Roger didn’t make all those millions because he is a recent winner. He made them due to the sheer love that he has generated worldwide.
Nice guys do win.
That’s no disrespect whatsoever to Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. They are nice guys too. Much-loved and rightly so.
Novak and Rafa also do a huge amount for those less fortunate than themselves. They are hugely admired on a number of levels.
But they are not Roger Federer. And as things stand, they still don’t have as many Grand Slams either.
When Wimbledon 2021 comes around, the world’s rich and famous will want to come and see Federer more than any other player.
Only Andy Murray will receive anything like the amount of pure love that the Wimbledon 2021 crowds will show Federer in what will probably be his final year.
And please don’t get us wrong. At Wimbledon 2021 there will be more than enough love to go round for everybody.
But Federer is special. In every way.
Maybe he isn’t the best in the world any more. But he is still the most loved and admired.
Money and love don’t always go together.
But in the case of the Forbes rich list of world athletes, they very definitely do.
Roger Federer isn’t finished. Far from it. The money men say he is still the hottest property out there.
The Wimbledon 2021 spectators on Centre Court will tell you the same.
You see, the Forbes rich list of world athletes isn’t so much a story about money.
Above all else it’s a love story.